May 11, 2009

“The Word of God”
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Our faith heritage is built on the belief that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is the final authority in all questions of belief and practice, and that it is God’s love letter to all those who feel alone and lost, clearly communicating to them the way of salvation. When we refer to the Bible as the Word of God, we are affirming our confidence that through the Bible God speaks the truth in a world of shifting ideas and values.

There has always been a bit of confusion between seeing the Bible as the Word of God and seeing it as the words of God. Jesus spoke of the ancient Jewish respect for every “jot” and “tittle” of the written law (Matthew 5:18). A “jot” (yod) is the tiniest Hebrew letter, and a “tittle” is a decorative flourish used on the edges of some Hebrew letters. Not only was every word to be respected as directly from God, but even the smallest letter; yes, even an ornamental stroke used to beautify a letter.

Modern-day fundamentalists try to take the same approach to the very words of our English Bible, insisting that they were given (“dictated” is a word sometimes used to describe this) by God to the human authors. Building from this idea, it has become common to refer to “verbal inerrancy” as a test of whether a person has a sound view of the Bible’s authority. There are so many problems with this view that even the most conservative fundamentalists qualify it by saying, “I believe the sixty-six books of the Bible are verbally inspired in their original manuscripts.” This means that the documents in which these writings were first inscribed by Moses, or Isaiah, or Paul were without error, though errors later crept in as the  documents were copied and recopied. Well, since we don’t have any of these “original manuscripts,” the claim to verbal inerrancy doesn’t guarantee that the words are all accurate in the Bible we have today.

We need to move our focus away from the words and back to the Word. It’s our belief that the Bible is the Word of God, that through it God speaks the truth loudly and clearly to anyone who is ready to listen. Since Jesus Christ is also referred to as “The Word” (John 1), we who follow him believe that he is the key to understanding what God is saying to us in the Bible. In Jesus, God is speaking to us the ultimate Word of forgiveness, of hope, of salvation.

Two revolutions have taken place during the forty-five years of my ministry that require us to redefine and refocus our view of the Bible as the Word of God. The first occurred early in my years in the pastorate, when the King James Version of the Bible lost its monopoly on preaching and teaching in English-speaking churches. With a variety of versions available, people began to use them more and more, with the Revised Standard Version and the New International Version emerging as the leading alternatives. This has had two results: average Christians have been able to find new layers of meaning through more modern language, and they have also come to see some of the problems scholars have in knowing what the original texts said and meant. The bottom line is that the words have become less important and the Word more important.

The second revolution is still in its early stages. It has to do with the whole new e-world that is opening up for anyone who has even the simplest hand-held computer. Right now, a person is able to look up a Bible verse in multiple translations, check the meaning of every word and phrase, find the history of interpretations of its meaning, read several sermons on how it should be applied, and read testimonies of people who have been blessed or challenged by the verse. There may even be an open blog where the person can interact in real time with others trying to hear God’s voice through this particular Bible verse.

That may sound confusing, because there are so many voices, so many perspectives and nuances. But I’m optimistic, because I’ve observed from experience that when words multiply, they tend to bounce off one another correcting or canceling out unintended meanings. The result is that the Word emerges even more clearly.